Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Woman in the Boat, Part One


February 18, 2014

Thirty-nine years ago, a recently reunited Vietnam began hemorrhaging people. The world knew them as “boat people,” because nearly a million of them risked their lives on small boats on the South China Sea in an effort, sometimes successful but just as many times unsuccessful, to find freedom and new life and a new start anywhere outside Vietnam. Tens of thousands of them did not take to sea but instead walked across Cambodia to refugee camps along the Thai border.
At first, the response of the West was mostly sympathetic. But in a short time it seemed that there was no end to this desperate Exodus. What had been “compassion” for the boat people soon became “compassion exhaustion.” The Asian nations where the boat people were detained and waited for sponsorship to the West and the Western nations that were expected to welcome them sought some day to stop the flow of people leaving Vietnam and to return them to their native country.
Today the boat people are almost totally forgotten. They have become merely a footnote, a tragedy in the wake of a tragedy and a sad reminder of America’s failed mission in Southeast Asia in the 1960s .
In the late 1980s, while Western businessmen clamored for an end to the American economic embargo of Vietnam and a green light for aid, trade and investment, -- tens of thousands of Vietnamese were still clamoring to get out of the country. And those who have made it by boat as far as the refugee camps of Southeast Asia, find themselves stuck in the middle of an international dilemma. They ran into a red light telling them they could proceed no further toward freedom and a new future. They would, most of them insisted, die rather than return to Vietnam.
It is estimated that in the fifteen years after the fall of South Vietnam, more than 1.5 million Vietnamese fled from their homeland as boat people. Nobody can be sure of the numbers, however. The unforgiving expanse of the South China Sea -- the main route to freedom – claimed the lives of one-third of those who tried to escape from Vietnam. The elements -- the typhoon winds, the deep swells and the rain -- swamped hundreds of the small boats and spilled their passengers into the insentient sea. Thai pirates preyed upon the tiny overloaded craft that sailed precariously toward distant safe havens in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. The pirates robed, raped, looted and killed when they intercepted the helpless Vietnamese. Little evidence was left behind of their crimes -- except for the grotesque accounts by a rare survivor who was picked up by a passing ship after clinging for days to a piece of wreckage. Occasionally bodies washed ashore on the resort islands in the Gulf of Thailand, grim, silent evidence of unspeakable crimes.
Father Joe Devlin, who was known in southern Thailand as "the Boat People's Priest," once told me that the bottom of the South China Sea had become the most common destination --the homeland -- of the boat people. He kept in his trunk hundreds of items -- pieces of albums or books or Vietnamese paper money -- that had washed ashore every day near the large camp where he worked in Songkhla in southern Thailand.
In 1979, when the post-war exodus from Vietnam surged dramatic the expulsion of the ethnic Chinese from Vietnam by the Vietnamese Communist (Lao Dong), the boat people captured the hearts of the world. Politicians(including the Vice President of the United States), television newsmen (from "60 Minutes") and concerned celebrities(including Jane Fonda) rushed to Songkhla, Pulau Bidong, Hong Kong other points of refuge to interview the boat people, to write about them or to be photographed with them. The message these concerned men and women of the West carried was simple and straightforward -- the world cares.
But the resources of the countries of first asylum in South East Asia, and then the nations of final settlement in the West were soon taxed to the limit. By the late 1980s what was referred to as "Compassion Exhaustion" was settling in throughout Asia and the West. The patience and humanitarian spirit of countries within sailing distance of Vietnam grew thin. Boats were "bumped away" or "pushed off" from Malaysia and Indonesia and the boat people were chased back out to sea. South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore patrolled their coastal waters and prevented the entry of boat people. Ships that picked up sinking ships carrying boat people were denied entry into Singapore. The refugee population in areas that accepted the boat people -- Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia and Malaysia -- swelled.
Of the 103,386 boat people who arrived in Hong Kong between 1975 and 1982, 95,060 were resettled in other countries, or 92 percent.
But before long the numbers of refugees began to far exceed the numbers of those resettled in the West. On July 2, 1982, British authorities in Hong Kong implemented a "Closed Centre" policy for refugees arriving after that date. Centres -- in some cases former prisons or abandoned offshore islands or empty factory buildings, managed by the Correctional Services Department -- housed the new arrivals while they were "processed." By water, barbed wire, and guards the authorities separated the boat people from the residents of Hong Kong and from each other. The new policy was intended as a deterrent to the rapidly rising tide of refugees arriving ino Hong Kong. It didn't work. The boat people continued to drift and sail into Hong Kong. And, to make matters worse, the number who were resettled abroad declined rapidly from an annual total of 37,468 in 1980 to 2,212 in 1987. The expense of maintaining the refugee population mounted as the United Nations, which supported the camps, fell behind on its bills. And as the critical situation mounted in Southeast Asia, the attention of the West shifted to other parts of the world -- to Eastern Europe where communism was crumbling and to the Middle East, where war was approaching.
In the early summer of 1989, the International Conference on Refugees from Indochina settled upon a partial solution to the problems presented by the boat people. A "refugee status determination procedure" was establishing, or "screening," by which "refugees" could be separated from "economic migrants." Individuals who were fleeing because of a "well founded fear of persecution" were to be classified as the first group, all others in the second. Those classified as economic migrants were to be returned to Vietnam and all others were to be interviewed by representatives from Western nations that might accept them for resettlement.
The new system created as many problems as it solved. Few of the boat people "screened out" -- about 80 percent of those interviewed -- chose to return voluntarily to Vietnam.
In October, 1988, Hong Kong authorities removed 48 detainees from Chi Ma Wan Detention Center, on Lantau Island, and one week later flew them back to Vietnam. In the patois of the boat people, some of them had become "airplane people." On December 29th, when 500 police and Correctional Service Department Officers returned to Chi Ma Wan, to search for weapons they suspected were being stored there -- to be used by the refugees to resist the next extraction of people for forced repatriation -- a riot broke out and at least 40 people were injured in the clash with the police. Those who remained behind and screened out, insisted that they would rather die than return to Vietnam. A few committed suicide in the camp but there were no Western newsmen present to record these tragic events. Suicide as a form of protest by the Vietnamese -- which worked so well in 1963 to draw the attention of the West --no longer worked. The media had moved on. The suicides receive little space in the local Hong Kong or Thai press, and none at all outside those countries.
By 1990 there were 78,000 boat people in run- down camps in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong who clearly could never qualify for settlement in third countries. And there were still 45,000 boat people in detention centers, prisons and camps in Hong Kong.
In 1990 4,769 Vietnamese voluntarily returned to Vietnam. As the British in Hong Kong preparde to return others they invented a new term to describe those who to be forcibly shipped back to Vietnam. They are called "acquiescent nonvolunteers."
I visted the Hong Kong camps a dozen times in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Red Cross volunteers helped me slip past the authorities and get into the camps to interview and photograph refugees. Of course, the collective term "boat people," like all collective labels, mased the individuality of the men, women and children, the husbands and wives, the fathers and mothers, the lovers and the dreamers in the camps. Each of them, it seemed, had a sad and desperate tale to tell. But even then there was a diminishing sympathetic audience.
In 1991, at Chi Ma Wan Detention Center on Lantau Island, I interviewed several people. The following story, told to me in Vietnamese by No. 1594, seemed to me typical of the experiences, the dreams and the frustrations of the hundreds of thousands of people who remainedvictims of the Vietnam War.
Economic Migrant No. 2513(Nguyen Dieu Huong) helped in the translation.

The Woman in the Boat:
The Story of No. 1594
(Nguyen Thi Thoa)

I look like this because I was burned during the war. In 1968, when I was just four years old, an airplane dropped fire on my village of Phu Diep, which is near the city of Hue . The fire burned my face, eyes, arms, hands and legs. I was so small that I don't know exactly how it happened. I just know that it was dark and then there was a big explosion and then fire covered my body. From that terrible night until today I have been in pain and my life has been difficult. Others were burned, too, but not as badly as me.
The next day American soldiers came into the village and they saw me. They took me to two American doctors and the doctors operated on me many times. They treated me kindly. Then they did not operate anymore because all the Americans went away.
Ever since that night my young life has been at the bottom of a deep pit in an unfair society. Because my body is burned by fire in the war, my education is unfinished, and I am self-conscious about my appearance. This has caused me great pains.
Every day, life was very difficult for me in Vietnam. Because of my appearance I was mistreated by people. Children were afraid of me and ran away and some adults wanted me to go away and not be seen. As a result, I became a burden for my family.
Then the communists came to my village and they saw me. They took me with them and they showed me to journalists in some towns and told them this is what the Americans had done to the Vietnamese people during the war. They treated me kindly but at the same time, they did nothing to help me. I was self-conscious then about myself and wanted a doctor to fix me, but the communists didn't care about that. They wanted me to stay the way that I was from the fire. They treated me kindly only for a very short time, only as long as they could show my burned body to foreign journalists and to other visitors.
Then someone told them that during the war my father had worked with the Americans. They took me back to my village and questioned my father and then they arrested my father and put him in a reeducation camp for several years. Our family was poor then.
The communists decided now not to use me anymore but to mistreat me instead. I was not allowed to go to school and I was not allowed to have a job. They tried to make me go away and live in a New Economic Zone where I would work until I died at a young age. They wanted me to go far away so they would not have to look at me anymore.
There was no hope for me any more in Vietnam. My burns hurt me still. And my eyes were hurt by the fire. You can see in them. My eyes always cry. Even when I am asleep at night my eyes cry. Even if I am happy, my eyes cried.
I hope that with your kindness, I can overcome myself consciousness because of my physical appearance. This is the reason I sought to escape from my native country. I attempted my escape three times. But the first two times I was unsuccessful and I was put in prison. Those months in prison were such agony for me. After I was released from prison I found that my mother had passed away from grief and worry about me. My hatred for the communists of Vietnam increased more because they prevented me from seeing my mother's kind and beautiful face one last time before she died. My mother loved me.
Now my family consists of my aging and broken father and two younger brothers and a younger sister. My 21 year old brother fled from Vietnam in 1984. Now he is in the San Yick camp in Hong Kong. In the tradition of my native country, with my aging father, deceased mother and younger brothers and sister, I should be the head of the family. However, when I stayed with my family in my village and tried to become the head of the family the Communists would not leave me alone and in peace and they would never let me work except, as they said, in a New Economic Zone far away from my home.
The Communists said that my family had a record as traitors and that they cooperated with the Americans. And so they punished us all for that. Life was difficult every day. Furthermore, with my appearance, I can never hope to have an ordinary life and have a husband and children, which I dream about sometimes.
But I have no love in my life outside my family. People see my burned body and they are afraid of me and they do not like to come close.
My hope now is you with your human kindness. I hope that you will help me overcome the great difficulties in my life.
On October 4, 1989, I received very distressing news in a letter of rejection from the refugee screening committee. They did not believe my life story. And now they will send me back to Vietnam.
I pray and hope that you now will intervene with them in my behalf.
I have no relatives anywhere in this world who can help me now. I was very glad when I met you and could tell you this story. My life so far has been full of pains, sufferings and agonies. I have no will to live anymore since I have received the rejection letter from the screening committee.
I look at my friends and then look at myself in the mirror and I can see in my face that life has been cruel and heartless to me.
Now I will not let them take me back to Vietnam to suffer more under the communists. I want to go to America and find the American doctors who operated on me in Vietnam when I was still a little girl. I want the American doctors to fix my hands and my body and my face so I can live a real life and have a husband and children of my own to love. I believe the American doctors can do that. After they fix me I can have a real life.
I want to ask you one question. People in Vietnam told me a story before I left. They said that most Americans are the Christian religion. And they said then that the Americans are helpful to the refugees because their God, named Christ Jesus, was refugee when his parents fled to escape a massacre by an evil government. Is this true that the people in the United States treat the boat people nicely because of this religious basis?
They told me before I left Vietnam that the Americans would accept me as a refugee for sure. But something went wrong.
Now that I have been screened out I have little hope left to get to America and to find doctors to fix me. But I will never go back to Vietnam. I will not let them take me back there again. I will die here instead. My heart inside now cries like my eyes. Now I am losing all hope for my life.
I bid you goodbye. Thank you for listening to me and for touching my hands. You are kind.
Remember me some time. Pray for me, please.

[In January, 1991, an appeal by No. 1594 was rejected by the British government in Hong Kong and Nguyen Thi Thoa remained classified as an "economic migrant" rather than as a refugee. She is scheduled now to be returned to Vietnam. The British government will pay the Vietnamese government $600 as a resettlement fee when Thoa is forcibly returned to Vietnam].
Between 1975 and 1999 nearly 144,000 Vietnamese in Hong Kong were resettled in other countries and more than 67,000 were sent back to Vietnam. The United Nations still owes Hong Kong HK$1.61 billion for the care of the Vietnamese refugees.
The last refugee camp in Hong Kong was closed on Thursday, June 2, 2000.

The following poem was written about Thoa by one of the students in Chimawan


Who will listen to my feelings?
Who will listen to a useless land?
After the war, my skin has been damaged.
There are craters in my body.

Although I was sad, sorrow and suffering,
Who will listen to my feeling?
I am sad, sorrow and suffering.
Who will know my feeling?

I am not sad about my harmed body.
I am sorrow because of the people who can't use me rightly.
Who will know my feeling?

Sindy Leung. (Vietnamese Refugee) Class 12A. Kai Tak New Horizons School, Kai Tak Open Camp, Hong Kong.